Council considers joining homeless committee

Merna Emara
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

During their bi-weekly meeting, council agrees to consider sitting on a homelessness committee to help tackle the rise of homelessness in Fort Frances.

Two representatives from the existing committee gave presentations to present to council the issues at stake.

Jamie Petrin, co-chair of the Fort Frances Homelessness Committee and representative of the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board, said there was a barren landscape to work with for people who are experiencing homelessness in Fort Frances since they started working three years ago.

“The homelessness committee is made up of representatives from 16 organizations in Fort Frances,” Petrin said. “We have been trying to include agencies that are likely to come in contact with individuals who are experiencing homelessness. We started working about three years ago, and when we first began, there was inconsistent meetings happening. We had a lot of different focuses with no real awareness of where to start.”

In working to eradicate the homelessness in Fort Frances, four different priorities were identified by the committee.

“We did our first priority setting as a group starting to triangulate focus,” Petrin said. “We identified a few of the things that we needed to work on first and today we started to look at what to do next. First thing, we identified the need for emergency solutions as first step. The need for a homelessness prevention program and the need for transitional housing with the Housing First Model. A fourth priority that we had identified was solutions for discharge planning from provincial institutions like jail or hospital.”

The committee said that in 2017, they approached local churches to see if they would help them with emergency shelter solutions.

“The churches that we approached wanted help but were not able to by providing space for a number of different reasons. Some churches operate community groups in the basement, some did not just have space,” Petrin said. “Eventually, one church in town did step forward to offer space three night per week. At that time, town officials had told us that we needed to meet the building code in order to let people sleep in this or any building. We continued to confer with town officials about these requirements over the following months that turned into years.”

Although the committee tried to recruit volunteers to run the space in order for repairs to be made in churches, they were not able to open because the costs of renovations were too high. But in 2018, the committee conducted a homelessness enumeration with DSSAB taking a lead on that.

“In the interest of time, the committee shifted direction from a shelter to a warming centre and we were able to open at the end of February last winter and stayed open until April,” Petrin said. “From the time that we closed the doors last spring to the warming centre, we conducted a public education campaign on social media to try and highlight existing services in the community to encourage connections to existing services.”

Peggy Loyie, program manager at the Rainy River District Victim Services Program, said it is important to have homeless shelters because it reduces crimes and break-ins.

This past winter, the committee approached agencies to staff a shelter space this past winter, but were not successful in finding an agency that was willing to do that. In doing this, the committee also identified the Sioux Lookout supportive housing as a model to try and replicate in Fort Frances with emergency beds.

“We held another fundraiser called “Baby it is cold outside,” where we did photos with Santa, donation boxes and a screening of “Us and Them.” We closed in April this spring, though RRDSSAB kept staff until mid May due to COVID-19,” Petrin said.

The committee also gave an example of the financial struggle individuals living on social welfare programs go through. For someone who is single and bares no responsibility of taking care of others would receive $733 per month if they are on Ontario Works.

Someone who is on ODSB would receive $1151. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Fort Frances is $852. That is more than someone who is on Ontario Works will get in an entire month. The average food bill for one month for one adult is $239. This leaves someone after food, shelter, considering no other necessities, who is on Ontario Works, negative $358 per month. Someone who is on ODSB, using the same numbers, will be plus $60 per month. This does not factor in phone, hygiene supplies, clothing, transportation or accommodation for any type of existing disability needs.

Mayor June Caul said council will decide whether they will sit on the existing committee or form a different one.

Councillor Andrew Hallikas, said homelessness is everyone’s problems and town representatives need to step up, do their share and help in finding solutions to this pervasive situation. Homelessness is a community problem and it will take a community to solve it, Hallikas said.

“We, as a community, need education like this to inform us of the scope of the problem,” Hallikas said. “I encourage all community members to educate themselves on this topic and where possible, to become part of this solution by volunteering or donating. The homelessness committee has shown some very strong leadership. I really applaud them for this.”

Petrin said they are lobbying for and working towards transitional or supportive housing with emergency beds. This is a temporary accommodation that is meant to bridge the gap from homelessness to permanent housing by offering structure, life skills, mental health support, addiction support, she added.

“Housing is a right that should be afforded to all people and only when they have housing that it is safe and secure that people work towards bettering themselves or healing themselves. We want to help people break the cycle of homelessness and we do see a continued need for emergency solutions.”